Huddle up

I hate staff meetings. Just another opportunity to hear the self-proclaimed expert tell me everything I am doing wrong, while I also grade some papers and check my social media.

The last thing any teacher wants is more staff meetings, more time sitting in student chairs, knees pressed against your chest, staring at the clock watching the longest hour of the month drag by.

Nobody wants another opportunity to pull out their Clorox Wipes to clean the student desk you are being forced to sit in again while trying not to picture the wad of gum you know is brushing against your thigh.

Nobody wants another PowerPoint presentation describing effective classroom instruction from someone who hasn’t had his own classroom in more than a decade.

Well…actually, someone does….ME. As a matter of fact, as a principal of a Title 1 school, a staff of incredibly dedicated teachers, a student population that was desperate for support and guidance, a school with resources stretched extremely thin, I actually enacted a program that changed our scheduled staff meeting time from once a month to every single day…We called them huddles.

Now before you totally freak out and begin to think this is ludicrous, let me explain.

If you get the chance to watch a football game this fall, take a look at what takes place in the huddle before each offensive play. Here is what you will see. The quarterback, the leader of the offense, will often look to the sidelines where those in charge of the game plan are standing. Using their analysis of what plays have worked in the past, and their goals for the future, the coaches will signal the next play, a play that they expect to work, that they expect will result in success, even though they know that not every play results in a touchdown. Some are plays complete busts resulting in turnovers or sacks, some bring about relatively short gains, while some do send the team running down the field towards the goal. Because each player is often focused on his unique position and responsibilities, he may not see the full picture. Having a coach call in a play that allows for each player to do his part in an attempt to bring about team success is where a huddle begins. 

timeout

In the huddle, the quarterback is responsible for articulating the plays to each player. Bringing all of the players together, looking them in the eyes, and sending them off with a clearly articulated plan is necessary. In many huddles, as the play is outlined, one or two players may break out early to get into position, while others may linger a moment longer to gain clarity. Huddles slow down the action, put everyone in a position to succeed, bring the game plan back into focus, and help the team move forward by analyzing past performance. All of this is needed in schools today.

Here is how my huddles worked:

My personal cell phone is set with a number of alarms. I have an alarm telling me when to wake up, when to run, when to greet teachers, and when to start and stop my huddles. Having a “play clock” for these daily meetings is extremely important.  A ten-minute meeting (huddle) every single day may seem like a lot of time for communication, but if not used wisely, this can also turn into a time-wasting activity.

I do not take attendance. I do not pass out papers. I do not do any managerial tasks during these ten minutes. Instead, at exactly 6:30am, I begin playing a playlist filled with upbeat music that is broadcast through the sound system of our cafeteria (Michael Jackson, Bobby McFerrin, etc…). When my alarm goes off ten minutes later at exactly 6:40am, I greet my staff with an excited, “Good morning, everyone.” If I start late, staff will show up late. If we do not jump right into the heart of the learning, value is lost and everyone will find other ways to fill the time. In a football game, the quarterback can’t wait for a lineman to walk back to the line of scrimmage at his own pace. He has to be ready to lead the huddle as soon as the play is called and he expects the other ten men on his team to be ready when he is.

The ten minutes of our Morning Huddle was split into four distinct sections. As a group, we spent the first two minutes celebrating the success of our peers. We demanded risk-taking and had high expectations for each staff member to go big.

The first two minutes of each meeting was a celebration of risks.

Last summer, when scrolling through items on the Oriental Trade Company website, just looking for small trinkets and prizes, I stumbled upon a game-changing purchase. As a school filled with pirate teachers (Thank you Dave Burgess and Quinn Rollins) we took pride in ourselves for looking for hidden treasures and our willingness to take chances in our pursuit of greatness. While on the OTC website I found items we now refer to as brag tags. These are dog tags with a variety of pirate symbols emblazoned onto each tag. I purchased 200 of them thinking my staff would be able to honor each other at morning meetings by bestowing tags to each other as they recognized risk-taking and tried to honor it. You can read more about this in next week’s post.

brag

What happened far surpassed my expectations. Staff honored each other and, as a result, inspired each other. Much like innovation occurring in the 1990s in Silicon Valley where tech moguls worked to enhance and build on the ideas of others at an exponential rate, staff members heard the ideas of others and not only stole them for themselves but worked to make them better. By allowing staff members to wear their brag tags daily along with their staff ID badges, students were able to see staff who were being honored for being innovative and often would ask their teacher how they earned it. The ensuing conversation then encouraged student risk-taking by modeling and celebrating from the teacher’s end. I am proud to say in our first year we ran out of the initial two hundred brag tags ordered by the end of the first semester. Not only were staff eager to celebrate each other, but they were actively searching for risk-taking among their peers, opening their doors to others to celebrate what was happening in their rooms, and they began showing up on time each morning to see if they were being honored or to honor their peers.

On the rare occasion that there was no celebration being called for by any of the seventy-five staff members in attendance, I was sure to have one or two successes to highlight in my back pocket ready to honor those that I observed. I was careful not to share this every day as that would create a new expectation. There is real value in having staff find value in each other, recognizing greatness in each other, and not just doing a dog and pony show for the boss in an attempt to earn a 25 cent trinket. If I found people to celebrate every day, people would simply wait for me to pay the tribute. The value came from teachers not only validating each other but in searching for reasons to validate each other.

The next four minutes of each huddle, no more than that, were utilized for a brief professional development moment.

We covered standards-based grading, classroom management, parent communication, etc… Keeping our time to four minutes served so many purposes. Much like the children they educate, teachers have extremely short attention spans. Keeping things short and focused allowed for more fruit to develop than dragging out PD into a two hour after school meeting. As a professional public speaker, keeping things to four minutes is also extremely valuable to me. It forces me to focus on the focus, to pay attention to the key points and not drag things out to hear myself speak. If I am able to take large concepts and synthesize them down into bite-sized nuggets then I force myself to really know the material being presented as well. 

I am not going to lie, four minutes was a tight time constraint, but it was doable. If I planned to model a pedagogical strategy, being able to fit it into a tight timeline required me to really reflect, brainstorm, and solicit the input of others. If a professional football team can get eleven men to gather into a circle, have each understand their unique responsibility, get back to the line, and hike a ball in under forty seconds, I should be able to get a group of professional educators together for four minutes and give them enough knowledge to enhance their performance.

huddle

The next two minutes of the huddle was an opportunity to reflect on the days prior. When I first began huddles, reflections were how each meeting began. I thought it was essential to begin each meeting by reviewing where we were and to analyze successes and failures from the day before. After about two weeks of this, I decided to change course. The reason was simple. This became all we did for each meeting. We never moved forward. Schools are notorious for living in the past.  Reflection is critical, but reflection is not the same thing as reminiscing, complaining, or telling stories. Reflection helps us grow if we are able to take a critical look at where we are and either celebrate or improve. Bringing reflection to the last half of our huddles allowed us to make connections from where we were to what we had just learned. This was a key step to moving forward.

Sometimes the reflection was simply a recap of an evolved practice. Sometimes it was an online survey where staff got to share where they were and where they needed to go. We used a variety of protocols, each with their own pros and cons. None took more than two minutes, however, because the last two minutes were the most critical of the entire meeting.

Each huddle adjourned with a challenge. Just as Tom Brady and Russell Wilson inspire their teams with a hand clap, a chant of their team names, or simple high fives, the huddle inspired action. After a huddle, football teams then step to the line, hike the ball, and implement what was just discussed. The coaches watch, analyze, and then plan the next steps depending on the results. Having a huddle just to huddle is a waste of time.

The final two minutes of each Morning Huddle at my school was where we discussed the day’s “look fors”. 

It was where we stated what staff members should be prepared to do to achieve success and what we would be reflecting on in the future. We provided challenges to teachers to make them step out of their comfort zones and try something new. Often the challenges were related to our four minutes of professional learning, but sometimes they were designed just to keep the pedagogical sword sharp. Below is a brief list of some of the challenges teachers were presented with:

  • Provide 50 hugs to 50 different kids
  • Use no paper
  • Do not use anything that has to be plugged in
  • Take your class outside of your classroom
  • Celebrate success all day and provide no negative reinforcement, 
  • Switch rooms with a peer
  • Wear a costume
  • Use Play Doh or Lego to teach the concepts

hugs

 

With each new learning, we were inspired to try something new. What we discovered was that no challenge was the silver bullet or magic pill, but each inspired us to stretch and grow by taking us out of our comfort zone and making us expand our instructional repertoire. Like an athlete who goes for a run daily in order to try and build strength and speed learns, he has to work in some cross-training, some hills, and speed workouts, to improve. He can plod along, putting in the miles every day, on the same track, but eventually, he will plateau. In order to keep getting better, he has to change things up every once in a while. The same is true with us as teachers. We can stick to our routines and be comfortable, but if we want to really see greatness and constant improvement, we need to add a little variety to stretch our abilities and become the strongest teachers we can.

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